Republicans appear increasingly tempted to “cut and run” in Libya and elsewhere. This is not a sentiment confined to the Ron Paul isolationist wing of the party. Nor is it a Tea Party phenomenon, despite support from Michele Bachmann and Allen West. Moderate Mitt Romney gave voice to similar views in the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire last week, evoking fierce public criticism from his 2008 rival, John McCain.
McCain denounced those Republicans who are prepared to abandon Ronald Reagan’s strong commitment to the defense of freedom around the world. In 1983, however, as a freshman representative from Arizona, McCain protested continued U.S. involvement in Lebanon. It was an episode he recalled often on the campaign trail in 2008 to reassure war-weary voters. Opposition to war is not new, for either party–nor is it always unjustified.
The way the Obama administration has undertaken the Libya war makes it a tempting target for ascendant anti-war sentiment in the GOP. After delaying for weeks, waiting for the Arab League and the UN to lead, President Obama sent in U.S. forces after Qaddafi regrouped. Having failed to ask Congress for approval, he then abdicated command to NATO, and overruled legal advice that he was in breach of the War Powers Resolution.
The case for regime change in Libya remains strong. But Obama was reluctant to make it directly, and still cannot find the courage to pursue that goal decisively. Had Obama approached Congress immediately, and committed U.S. forces to victory, the Libya war could have ended within days. Instead it has dragged on for months, weakening NATO and exposing the weakness and hypocrisy of Obama’s shame-driven foreign policy.
It is clear that Obama is preoccupied with guilt about America’s role in the world. That is why he has abandoned governments that support or work with the U.S., and why he is eager to appease and flatter those that align with America’s enemies. That is why he tarried over the bin Laden operation and disposed of his remains in a sham Muslim rite. That is why he treats the Libya war as a humanitarian mission, not a military operation.
All of that is fertile ground for criticism. Yet questions about how the Libya war is being conducted, and whether it is being conducted legally, as well as why we got involved in the first place, are all separate from the most fundamental question of all: what to do now that we are fighting there (whether the administration recognizes it or not). As in the Iraq war, the U.S. must consider the future consequences of withdrawal without victory.
A withdrawal would allow Qaddafi to revive his support for terrorism and install him as Africa’s paramount leader. It would end NATO as a serious military alliance, and greatly diminish the U.S. deterrent. It would send a signal to dictators and terrorists that they can defeat superior arms with superior brutality and tenacity. It would revive a precedent for U.S. weakness in the face of conflict that we have spent a decade trying to undo.
Republicans who are tempted to take an anti-war line are letting Obama get away with an ideological victory even as he suffers a tactical defeat. Obama still subscribes to a worldview in which American military power is diminished. Withdrawing from Libya will help achieve that goal. Moreover, Obama has failed as commander-in-chief in Libya. It is important to emphasize that, even as the administration touts the bin Laden success.
In addition, Republicans who “cut and run” risk sacrificing the party’s national security constituency. As former U.S. Marine Captain Gabriel Ledeen wrote in March, from the soldiers’ perspective, “the time for spirited debate is before they are ordered into combat.” Afterwards, “opposition actively interferes with [their] pursuit of [their] objectives and makes an already dangerous and difficult mission even more difficult and dangerous.”
Yes, Republicans should point out that Obama has denied Congress the opportunity to debate the Libya war. But that point alone will not satisfy the responsibility Republicans have to offer an alternative foreign policy based on American strength. McCain won the 2008 primaries partly because he was one of the few willing to back the Iraq surge. The candidate who summons similar courage in 2012 will deserve to represent the party.